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A verdict and the vote

Print edition : Nov 04, 2005 T+T-

Even as the Supreme Court verdict on the "unconstitutional" dissolution of the Assembly and the Governor's conduct causes embarrassment to the Central government, the election campaign in the State proceeds focussed on other issues of political importance.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi and Patna

BIHAR Governor Buta Singh arrived in New Delhi on October 11, four days after the Supreme Court ruled that the dissolution of the State Assembly on his recommendation was unconstitutional. The visit was, professedly, motivated by the Governor's wish to meet and spend time with two close family members who were not keeping well. But speculation was rife in the capital, particularly because of the relatively long - three days - duration of his stay, that Buta Singh would be summoned by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and asked to put in his papers for the "unconstitutional" recommendation.

But nothing of that sort happened. On the third day of his stay Buta Singh even appeared before the media. He was, of course, circumspect while replying to questions relating to the Supreme Court order. His reaction to the order was that "the apex court's judgment is acceptable to all". Buta Singh did not respond when asked whether the "acceptable-to-all" Supreme Court verdict entailed a moral obligation on his part to resign as Governor. He explained his silence with the comment that anything else he would say would harm the Bihar elections which are in full swing now" and that even "a single word" from him would "send a wrong message" on the "ticklish matter".

According to a senior Congress leader from South India, Buta Singh's humming and hawing, in many ways, reflected the predicament of the leadership of the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The party and the UPA had realised, the leader added, that the embarrassment caused by the Supreme Court order was not confined to the Governor and that it was "firmly wrapped around" the UPA leadership too, including Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet, which made haste to accept Buta Singh's recommendation. The debates in the party on the issue, the leader said, reflected an awareness that President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam should not have been hustled into signing the dissolution proclamation while he was on a visit to Russia.

All this introspection was, in a way, reflected in the comments made by the Prime Minister to the media while attending the Congress Chief Ministers' conclave in Chandigarh. Referring to the Supreme Court verdict, Manmohan Singh said his government had acted on a specific recommendation made by the Governor that "the situation was such that dissolution is the only course". But he added that he did not "disown" his "responsibility as the Prime Minister".

But, beyond the introspection, the party and the UPA leadership had to address the political ramifications of the judgment. Primarily, this involved gauging and analysing its impact on the election scene in Bihar. There was little doubt that the order had given the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) a good campaign issue. The NDA not only raised the issue from campaign platforms in Bihar but took the battle to New Delhi by petitioning the President to recall Buta Singh.

The NDA campaign was centred around two points. First, its leadership claimed that the verdict was a "victory for constitutionalism and upholding its principles". The alliance said that by paving the way for this victory through the exposure of the misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution, it had struck a major blow to democracy. The second point focussed on the angle of "political conspiracy" involved in misusing the provisions of the Constitution.

Arun Jaitley, BJP general secretary, who took the lead in espousing this point, repeatedly said that the "conspiracy" was to prevent the formation of an NDA government in Bihar and that the three main actors involved in this were Buta Singh, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, and the Central government. "Twenty-one of the 29 candidates who had won on the Lok Janshakti Party [LJP] ticket were ready to merge with the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)," he said. And it was to prevent this that a Union Cabinet meeting was called on the night of May 22, leading to the proclamation to dissolve the Bihar Assembly on May 23, Jaitley alleged.

The question before the UPA leadership was whether recalling Buta Singh would impart greater strength to the NDA campaign or not. Recalling the Governor would have helped the party continue on the "high moral ground path", charted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi through her "sacrifice of power" when the UPA government was being formed last year and adopted even recently by Manmohan Singh through the open expression of regret for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. But the overwhelming view in the Congress and the UPA was that this would not help the party gain any political points in Bihar.

To start with, it was argued by Congress leaders such as Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, that recalling the Governor would be tantamount to an open admission of guilt. Patel - who, apparently, was instrumental in creating the haste for the dissolution of the Assembly - is reported to have contended that in a State like Bihar, where political practice and impact are dependent more on caste equations than on perceptions of right and wrong, such an admission of guilt would be counter-productive.

From the ground, the feedback from the RJD leadership - the leader of the UPA in Bihar - including Lalu Prasad was that the NDA campaign against the Governor's conduct was not making much impact. The matter was being discussed only in the urban centres, where the RJD and the UPA are traditionally not strong, according to it. The feedback said that the RJD's counter-campaign - questioning where the 21 LJP legislators who were to join the Janata Dal (United) are now - has reduced the impact of the NDA campaign. The RJD counter-campaign essentially pointed to the fact that only 17 of the 21 LJP legislators ultimately joined the Janata Dal (United). And the 17 would not have helped the NDA form the government in May. In any case, senior RJD leader Sivanand Tiwari told Frontline, the NDA was not able to respond to questions about horse-trading, which created the situation in which LJP legislators were to join the Janata Dal (United).

In the background of this, close associates of Buta Singh indicated that he would not quit in a hurry even if he were asked to do so. "Why should he, when he was only trying to stop horse-trading and protect the interests of democracy?" asked one of his associates.

The feedback from the ground, the views of leaders such as Ahmed Patel, and the Governor's own suggested recalcitrance ultimately impelled the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi to go with the UPA decision to "brazen out" the NDA campaign until the Supreme Court came out with a detailed judgement. Manmohan Singh's statement in Chandigarh that he would rather wait for the detailed verdict to come before making any further comment reflected this belief. Meanwhile, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Ahmed Patel reportedly advised Buta Singh to keep a low profile and stay out of further controversy until the Centre decided on its course of action.

As the campaign progresses in Bihar there is less and less focus on the Governor's conduct and the dissolution of the Assembly. Leading the UPA campaign, both Sonia Gandhi and Lalu Prasad have even made bold to say that the last Assembly was dissolved in the absence of a clear verdict and owing to horse-trading. Their appeal to the people is to give a mandate that does not create the earlier situation. The NDA too is concentrating more on the "15-year RJD misrule" slogan than on the "injustice" done in May. But a Damocles' sword still hangs over Buta Singh in the form of the full judgment of the Supreme Court. If it contains strictures against him, it would be difficult for Buta Singh to hold on despite the decreasing focus on his conduct in the electoral field.